What is Black Tea?
Black tea, also known as “red tea” in China for its rich, reddish infusion, is unique in that it is comprised of two different forms of the camellia sinensis plant: camellia sinensis sinensis and camellia sinensis assamica. Camellia Sinensis Sinensis yields shorter leaves and is primarily used in China and other neighboring East Asian countries. Camellia Sinensis Assamica has larger leaves and is used in parts of India and Sri Lanka. Dry black tea leaves are 100% oxidized, leaving them with a blackened color, thus earning its namesake. While the method in which it is produced varies from region to region, the process always involves withering, rolling, oxidization, and drying. There are two primary methods of processing the leaves before they are graded:
Orthodox Method – This is the most common method of processing black teas. With this method, more care is put into the tea leaves. After the leaves are picked, they are allowed to wither in the warm air for up to 18 hours to reduce their water content until they are soft and pliable. The leaves are then rolled in a special machine that gently presses and twists the leaves in order to break the cells to begin the oxidization process. This process can take several rounds, depending on the grade of a leaf is cut. After the leaves are cut, they are once again exposed to the air in a climate-controlled environment so that they can continue to oxidize, altering the level of polyphenols in the leaf. This is the point where the flavor of the leaf begins to develop. Once the leaves reach the appropriate oxidization level, they are then fed into a machine to dry, which halts the oxidization process.
CTC (Cut, Tear, Curl) Method – This method was developed around the teabag boom of the 1950s to facilitate the production of smaller cut tea leaves and quicker processing time. While the production begins and ends in the same fashion with withering and drying, the rolling process is skipped in this method and the leaves are instead minced and broken apart in a rotor vane machine.
History Of Black Tea
Until the mid 17th century (Late Ming, Early Qing Dynasty), the only teas consumed in China were green (unoxidized) and oolong (semi-oxidized) teas.
The tale goes that while a passing army entered the Fujian province, they decided to take shelter at a nearby tea factory. This held up production at the tea factory, where leaves were left out in the sun, causing them to oxidize for a longer period of time and resulting in darker leaves. In an effort to accelerate the drying time, they decided to smoke the leaves over pinewood, thus creating Lapsang Souchong, which became one of the very first black teas.
Although compressed, post-fermented teas (pu-erh) were already known as “black teas” in China, the term was usurped by Dutch and British traders who began identifying Chinese “red teas” as “black teas” because of the color of the dark, dry leaves. Even to this day, Chinese “red tea” is still referred to as “black tea” in the Western world.
What impressed the Westerners most about black tea was not only the robust flavor the tea produced but also the improved lifespan of the leaves over time. And, as British demand for black tea grew, so did the holes in their pockets as they struggled to pay for their tea treasures in a market that was quickly being monopolized by the Dutch. This motivated British traders to explore other avenues for acquiring black tea. After several failed attempts, they discovered a similar genus of the camellia sinensis plant (camellia sinensis assamica) that could be cultivated by machine in India, yielding a bolder crop at a more lucrative return, thus catapulting the Western tea industry to a new level and reshaping our perception of the importance of black tea today.
Black Tea Today
In today’s market, “broken leaf” black tea accounts for over 90% of all tea sold in the US, the majority of which is enjoyed as iced tea. Also, with the invention of the teabag at the turn of the 20th century, black tea quickly became a household staple and continues to be a popular favorite in the home today. So much so that it’s almost a wonder to the Western world that black tea was ever enjoyed outside of a paper bag with a string attached to it!
Nowadays, with the resurgence of the Chinese economy and the growing wealth of tea knowledge surrounding us, we are once again introducing our palates to the many wonders of black tea and the many dynamic taste profiles it offers. The major production of black tea today stems from India, China, Sri Lanka, and Africa.
Black Tea Types & Variants
Usually, high-quality black tea is kept within the country of origin and very rarely gets exported. However, Art of Tea has cultivated unique relationships with fair trade organic black tea estates and growers, therefore allowing us an exclusive opportunity to share those teas with you. Depending on the aroma, flavor, body, elevation, and time of harvest, Art of Tea offers a wonderful variety of black teas ranging from single-origin to blended infusions. Here is a breakdown of some of our favorite black tea types and variants:
Chinese Black Teas
Congu – Slightly sweet in flavor, this brisk yet rich tea is the perfect starter component for creating kombucha tea.
Keemum Mao Fang – This historically revered tea has been passed down from generation to generation and is still prized for its aromatic properties today. This magnificent tea yields a vibrant cup with notes of pine, cocoa, and marshmallow.
Lapsang Souchong – Considered one of the very first black teas to be introduced to the west, this tea became known for its signature smoky flavor and aroma permeated by the campfires of traveling caravans. Nowadays, the signature flavor is recreated by smoking the leaves over pine needles. This tea pairs nicely with savory dishes.
Indian Black Teas
Assam – Usually bold and malty in flavor, this tea has a dramatic character that rivals the potent punch of coffee, making it a great transition tea. This is also a great base for blending and holds up well against multiple steepings.
Darjeeling – Just like champagne, Darjeeling comes from the Darjeeling region of India and has a smooth, bright flavor with muscatel overtones and a slightly floral finish. Arguably one of the best black teas in the world, this dynamic tea leaves behind a subtle hint of lingering astringency on the palate.
Sri Lankan Black Teas
Ceylon – Depending on the altitude in which it is harvested, this tea may yield a beautiful light golden color with a round, feathery finish or it can be fuller-bodied, with a deep mahogany tincture and bolder taste. Ceylon tea is considered one of the finest in the world.
Black Tea Tips & Preparation
Black tea is best prepared at a water temperature of 206° F, with a steep time of about 3-5 minutes, to get the maximum amount of flavor from the leaf. Unlike most other tea types, black teas fare well when steeped with extremely hot water. The only exception to this rule is with Darjeelings, which are more delicate and should be steeped at a lower temperature of 180°F for no longer than 3 minutes to avoid bitterness. Black teas can be re-steeped multiple times although the flavor will depreciate with each steeping. For optimum results, it is suggested that you use about 1 tsp per 8oz cup.
Because of the oxidization process that goes into the production of black teas, the caffeine levels present in the leaves tend to depreciate. Compared to other tea types, Chinese black teas have about the same caffeine content as green teas, whereas larger leafed Indian black teas have slightly higher caffeine content. Both types are significantly less than that in a cup of coffee, containing about half the amount of caffeine altogether.
The actual caffeine content present in a cup of black tea varies upon how long the tea is steeped. The longer the steep time, the more caffeine the tea will contain. The caffeine content will lessen each time tea is re-steeped.
Whether you are new to black teas or just looking for something unique and adventurous to satiate your palate, we have a wonderful selection of teas and blends to try. Here are some of our favorites:
- Single Source – Assam Gold, Darjeeling, Golden Monkey
- Blends – 1896, Classic Black, Earl Grey Crème, Lychee Peach, Tali’s Masala Chai
- Iced – Classic Black, Garden of Eden, Passionfruit Jasmine, Summer Peach